We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Vittoria Colonna: 3 poems & a correspondence · 13 June 07

Dear Miss Vane,

I’ve not talked about my book (about 400 poems) of translated English poetry from the complete corpus of Vittoria Colonna’s Italian poetry since Jim and I first started this blog. About two weeks ago I got a courteous scholarly query about my Colonna book and yesterday it came to my attention that recent friends don’t know I’ve translated this book and all (about 80) the Italian poetry of Veronica Gambara. I include what I wrote towards a literary biography of Colonna and a complete short life and assessment of the poetry for Veronica Gambara.

So today I thought I would feature three of my translations of Colonna (not the ones selected by editors of books) and send onto you the correspondence with this scholar. Barbara Neri is an associate editor of an edition of the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning being prepared for publication by Chatto and Pickering. The value of what I’ve answered to her for others (if they consider my poems of value) is that for the first time I explain the arrangement (or my new ordering) of the Colonna poems. In a few days I’ll write a analogous explanation of the ordering of the Gambara poems with a correspondence I had with a scholar, Antonia Chimenti, who recently wrote and published a biography of Gambara. She thanks me for my work. Then this weekend I’ll add these explanations of my arrangements as prefatory notes to my books on my site.

Quel bel ginepro, cui d’intorno cinge

See that lovely juniper, pressed so hard,
angry winds swirl round her, but she’ll not let
her leaves fall or scatter; clenched, branches held
high, she gathers strength; her refuge within.
This, my friend, is a picture of my soul
standing firm against all; if life’s ravaged,
weakened me, my fear’s contained, and I win
by enduring a pain which makes it hurt
to breathe. Mine was a noble dream, sheltered
in his splendor and love, my pride would be
restored; I would encounter life’s bitter
battles. Nature taught this tree to resist:
in me you see what reason can perform
how from the worst evil good can grow.

Oh che tranquillo mar, che placide onde

Look, how quiet the sea, peaceful the waves
my firm ship swept through this transparency,
cared for, rich with beautiful, useful things,
the air felt sweet, serene, the breeze was kind.
Hidden from me now, then the sky’s kind lights …
glimmered, strewn through mists which held no shadow:
those who cross thresholds easily can’t see
our end isn’t present in what once was.
Suddenly, I had many enemies …
the stars and fate unveiled a malicious
derisory face and the storm began …
In the sky winds, rains, flashing knives gathered:
inside, tearing, devouring monsters,
still I hold on, my sight fixed above the hills.

Fiammeggiavano i vivi lumi chiari

When the sky’s living lights were like fire,
and our noble minds were roused to brave acts,
when our great, choice, and master spirits each
daily gave proof of the most rare of gifts;
when the Graces had not yet turned into
the Dark Sisters or a God who begrudged me;
when the planets were orderly, glad, kind,
and instilled upright shining hearts with strength;
never did the sun create brighter days;
one heard angelic harmony in the air:
Nature was everything she could become.
Meadows strewn with lillies and violets,
all was still, the seas and winds were quiet
when my life’s light came into the world.

The correspondence:

“Dear Ellen (if I may),

I am delighted to have found your site. I have a question for you regarding VC’s work with regards to what is usually referred to as her “Rime amarosa.” And correct me if I am wrong, but I think that this title comes from Alan Bullock’s 1982 book / collection of VC’s “Rime”? I’m reading “Strong Voices Weak History …” (Editors Benson and Kirkham). And “Rime amarosa” is used to describe VC’s love sonnets written following the death of her husband on page 135 in the the chapter titled “Women Writers in Renaissance Italy” by Fabio Finotti. You are probably already familiar with this book.

I am a scholar of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s work and in particular her 44 love sonnets “Sonnets from the Portuguese” and an associate editor of a new edition of EBB’s complete works forthcoming with Pickering & Chatto. Our / my intentions are to bring out her other intentions for and influences at play within these love sonnets – other than the usual interpretation of them as being mainly about her courtship with her future husband, poet Robert Browning. I feel certain there is some indebtedness to VC in EBB’s love Sonnets. In particular EBB’s speaker’s voice is from a place of death and despair and I have always felt that this was the higher spiritual ground she deliberately chose for her love poetry. And this as you can imagine is very simply stated because indeed as you are well aware with VC’s poetry – the speaking voice is complexly layered and the interplay of personal and poetic equally so.

So my question to you is about your site and the layout of VC’s work. You mention in the plan for your bio of VC a chapter arguing for a new order of her poems. So I am wondering if it is possible for you to tell me which of the sonnets or groupings would be ones representative of the ones she wrote after her husband’s death? Are these indeed what are referred to as “Rime amarosa”? And please correct me as I may be jumping to a big conclusion here with regard to your argument toward a new ordering of VC’s work – but are you thinking that the sonnets attributed to have been written after her husband’s death are rather not so easily encapsulated? I am endeavoring to craft a note for the edit of EBB’s 44 love sonnets in the new edition that will bring out the possible influence of VC’s poetic speaking voice upon EBB’s in her love sonnets. And then also I wonder if your translations are in print? If so, I would certainly want to draw the reader’s attention to that in any notes we craft – but your site would also work as well.

Let me say that I was so very delighted to find your resourceful and valuable site. I am very much looking forward to hearing from you.

Very Best Wishes,

Barbara Neri
Artistic Director
Khoros, Inc.
The EBB Project / Williams Wing

My first reply:

Dear Barbara,

I never thought to ask the question about Bullock’s term, but yes it must’ve been he who invented it. It does seem correct in the sense that she has a series of love poems to her husband which are highly erotic and seem not religious at all (his other term is rime spirituali). The first series of poems in his edition are based on an ordering he found in one of the major manuscripts which appealed to him.

I nowadays am not sure that one can order Vittoria Colonna’s poems in a way that makes sense beyond the chronological (which in itself would be a way of ordering them). However, as we don’t know when most of the poems were written precisely, we can’t follow that ordering. When I did my translations and put them on line, I put them in the order I thought made most sense. All her poetry, including the fragments is online as translated by me, each one accompanied by an Italian text; most are taken from the older edition by Visconti (which Bullock wrongly and unfairly disses and dismisses), with some corrections offered by Bullock’s edition; others are from a variety of older sources, and in a couple of cases from Bullock’s edition (as he found new poems):


Two of the poems are in print in Renaissance anthologies; I never kept the titles of these only know of them since the scholars who used them contacted me for permission first. One of these anthologies was published by Greenwood Press. I tried twice to publish my work by sending out a letter and sample poems; in the first case, I got no reply; in the second I also offered an edition of Veronica Gambara. The publishers seemed interested in Gambara only, but I never finished my work to the point I wanted to send it to them, and instead put an edition of the complete translation of Gambara’s poems on my website, where I also ordered the poems:


One of my Gambara poems has been published—in an anthology of women’s poems.

I have been over the years since I put the poems on my site (about 8 now) commended by many people; two people used my translations of Colonna for their masters thesis (one at Oxford). A couple of times publishers got in contact with me to ask if the poems were published elsewhere (one German man who was very impressed with them); in one case (University of Chicago), the editor wanted to use the Gambara translations in an edition under way by a graduate student but the student was very unwilling to use my poems instead of hers and it was made plain to me that I was expected to somehow muscle in on her territory. I don’t have the kind of character to do that.

I do creative translation in the sense that I do not adhere literally to the original text but try for a modern spirit and language that is living today. I’ve found a very narrow defintion of translation as crib texts is really what’s wanted by many people. Perhaps that’s why I never got a reply on the Colonna. I admit I have not tried hard in the sense of continually contacting people.

I don’t see why you can’t use or refer to my texts online. On a few occasions now people have simply referred to or used my work in essays published in peer-edited academic journals.

Thank you very much for contacting me. I spent 25 years on the Colonna poems and finding out about her life and gathering materials; my work on Gambara was much shorter and some of it part of the time I took over Colonna. As you might imagine, these poems mean a great deal to me. I am happy to say they do exist in a permanent digital repository at GMU—put there by the digital repository librarian. Of course permanent is permanent as long as GMU wants to keep this digital repository cyberspace up. They say “forever” but then again forever is a long time.

Congratulations on your connection with Pickering and Chatto. I enjoy the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I’m a scholar of women’s poetry and have written reviews and essays in scholarly journals on earlier women’s poetry. If you want to see one published recently, here’s one:


I do have a conventionally published book: it’s 50% on Anthony Trollope and 50% on cyberspace experiences reading his books with others online:


Ellen Moody

She then wrote:

“Dear Ellen,

Thank you so very much for your thoughtful reply. I think it would be most appropriate to site your website and refer scholars to your work in that manner. The internet is becoming a valid tool and a legitimate way of publishing work. And I for one am very glad to have access to scholarly work in this manner. Could you possibly point me toward which of the subject headings on this page contain VC’s sonnets from her Rime amorosa:

http://www.jimandellen.org/ vcpoetry/vctitle.htm

These would be the ones generally thought to be written following her husband’s death. As this is thought to be a sonnet sequence I think it might be a good way of making a comparison to EBB’s sonnet sequence.

The Pickering and Chatto deal was gotten by the editor in chief (Sandra Donaldson UND). I am an associate editor contributing mainly my research on EBB’s Love Sonnets – and her love sonnets have been “loved to death” so I am endeavoring to bring the readers attention to her other intentions. She did mention VC in letters. Not often but in terms of searching for a poetical grandmother she said that Italy has her Vittoria Colonna but where is England’s? I find it hard to imagine that she did not read VC’s sonnets. I think they were published in 1840 in England? And she was fluent in Italian and made her own translations of Petrarch for instance.

Thanks so very much again for your reply


To which I replied this morning as follows:

Dear Barbara,

I apologize for taking so long to reply. This summer I am teaching while working on a project towards a paper (or book) so I sometimes get swamped. Also I delayed because the kind of question you ask goes to the heart of the problem I have coping with people’s response to my translation and other work on Colonna.

When I first conceived my idea to translate the poetry of Vittoria Colonna, I also wanted to put them in an order. After studying Bullock’s edition (1982) and Visconti’s, I felt the poems were still in complete disarray. I did not agree with Bullock’s ordering. Basically he follows two manuscripts and then creates a second set of amorous and religious poems on his own. Recently a Neapolitan scholar has produced a separate partial edition where she agrees with my dismay and arguments (though she doesn’t mention me) and there have been two further articles arguing with Bullock. Anyway my process and arrangement are explained in an essay that precedes the translation of Gambara and Colonna:


Basically I rearranged the poems into an autobiographical sequence where you can follow Colonna’s conversion into a complete religious way of life so that religion became the center of her existence as it had not been when she was younger. This is “Part One: In solitude”. I made another autobiographical sequence where you can follow her life from the time she was young: poems here begin with poems which refer back to her youth and take you past the marriage, D’Avalos’ death, to anniversaries; then the idea breaks down in sense and I provide poems to her family members and friends arranged by who they are sent to. This is “Part Two: With Imagined Others.” The general idea is Part One she thinks just of herself alone apart from the rest of the world; in Part Two she writes with others she knows in mind and presents how they affected her. Devotional meditations are religious, and I went through her poems setting up sequences. You can do this: to Christ, to the Virgin Mary, to Magdalen. At the time I remember wondering if she herself had intended or foresaw a sequence to Christ because they are rows of them together. But she never really planned to publish anything in a large book; she allowed a small book of selections to be published (or maybe they were published without her knowing; it’s hard to tell). She did allow her poems to circulate in manuscript collections and had them written up in large manuscripts. This was the way of publication in the era (as you know). Then again I have poems which are meant to be outward: political about events and exhortatory.

I picked out a set for a prologue, some of them begin some of the manuscripts; the ones for closure I chose because they seemed later, beautiful, and appropriate.

So the poems written to Colonna’s husband after his death are mixed among the others.

I am telling you I can’t answer your question because the book I made and put on the Net is set up by literary values.

I do have an index of every single poem and I use Bullock’s first lines so if you know what poems you want to read you can do it from here:


You ask an interesting question: when were the poems published in England for the first time. I’ve forgotten. There was an extraordinarly beautiful translatoin of a group of them done into French in the 1890s, by the man who translated Austen’s Northanger Abbey into French (a rare good translation: Felix Fenelon). There has been no complete translation of Vittoria Colonna into English but mine. There was a Victorian woman who was part of a circle of people who read Italian and some of them wrote scholarly books and she translated many of Colonna’s poems but it was scattershot and she included them higgedly piggedly in her biography: Maria Roscoe, Vittoria Colonna, Her Life and Poems (London, 1868). If you get Roscoe out, she may tell you (inadvertently or not deliberately) when she first came across Colonna.

I have a bibliography which I kept up complete until about 2 years ago:


I apologize if I seemed at all abrupt or discourteous; I sometimes grow weary and even bitter about my work on the Net (because of some of the responses I’ve had), and I’ve left off curating it (so to speak). I also had a bad experience some time back when someone else meaning well attempted to intervene with a publishing venture from the University of Chicago to give me an opportunity (as she saw it) to publish my poems from Veronica Gambara and so I am now wary of people questioning me. I have a hard time answering you because when I conceived my project I was not thinking of myself as writing a book which others could use with efficiency who wanted to use Colonna’s own poems or ideas about her for their scholarship. I conceived it as a literary imaginative project where I was presenting Colonna’s poetry in a form I hoped others would find beautiful and which would give them insight into her poetry. Mine is accurate and faithful but creative translation.

Actually your question has spurred me to answer you in a way I should probably put on the Net and maybe I’ll put the above in a little note attached to “Amaro Lagrimar.” So thank you.


Miss Sylvia Drake

Posted by: Ellen

* * *


  1. I have thought maybe I should explain my allusion to Uriah Heep lest someone misunderstand and think I am referring to him or her.

    Two years ago someone emailed asked me if he could read aloud a group of my Colonna poems at a Renaissance poetry festival. I was flattered and happy and just wanted to know where he was doing it and which poems. He wrote me a letter that shocked and appalled me—seething with resentment at me as this privileged upper class person who had demanded she be allowed to investigated his life. He was deeply angry at my asking which ones. I wasn’t trying to control or stop him (much less ask for money but he never seemed to think of that). I dropped the letter from my hand it was so full of hatred. It seemed he was himself an unpublished poet. Well, it was like some scene from David Copperfield and I was David and he Uriah.

    I showed it to Jim and (John Grey like), he told me dismiss it from my mind and throw it out. I did.

    I never found out which poems by me from Colonna he read aloud at this festival.

    Elinor    Jun 13, 1:18pm    #

commenting closed for this article